At the Capitol, a historic competition of values

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 21, 2011 - 8:40 PM

What Gov. Mark Dayton represents is more in line with the ideas that built this state and made it successful.

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After a meeting with GOP leaders, Gov. Mark Dayton met with media members to express frustration with GOP leaders to come to a compromise on the state budget.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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My historical irony sensor goes off whenever I hear Republican legislators lecture Gov. Mark Dayton about how best to spur business and improve the state economy.

Maybe they forget that the governor is a Dayton. Of Dayton's. His dad and uncles built the department store their grandfather founded in 1902 into a regional retailing behemoth.

They more or less invented the enclosed shopping mall and more or less built the Nicollet Mall. Then they created Target.

Yes, Dayton is a DFLer who is proposing to raise taxes on high-end earners. But just by listening to Bruce Dayton at the dinner table, he likely learned more before the age of 12 about how to succeed in business than most people ever learn.

The budget battle that has hung up the 2011 session is sometimes characterized as government vs. business. Dayton, it's said, wants to "grow government," while the GOP Legislature's budget would shrink government programs to avoid raising taxes on "job creators."

Presumably so they'll be inspired to create jobs. Presumably good-paying ones. Presumably here. And presumably, the budget cuts and ensuing local property tax increases that the Republicans prefer instead won't hurt businesses at all.

If that isn't enough presuming to strain credulity, allow an amateur historian one more poke at the GOP story line: I see the state budget quarrel not as government vs. business, but as the product of two long-competing American ideas about how businesses succeed and what citizenship requires.

This fight isn't just DFL vs. GOP. In American history, it's New England vs. Virginia. It's yeoman farmers and merchants vs. landed gentry. It's town-meeting governance vs. an oligarchy of aristocrats.

In latter-day Minnesota, it's Elmer Andersen vs. Tim Pawlenty -- both Republican governors. Pawlenty is a lawyer-politician by profession, and sufficiently probusiness to win ample campaign support from that quarter.

Andersen actually was a businessman. He built two little Minnesota companies, H.B. Fuller and ECM Publishers, into large ones.

Pawlenty held that the best thing for business was to constrain state spending, reject higher state taxes and castigate local governments for raising property taxes to make up for only about half of the deep state aid cuts he signed into law.

Andersen believed that businesses exist to benefit their customers, employees and communities as well as their owners, and that taxes spent wisely to shore up the state's shared human and physical capital were good for business.

Pawlenty's thinking is in sync with the national Republican Party today -- so much so that he's increasingly being seen as a top-tier GOP presidential candidate in 2012. His official candidacy announcement is expected Monday.

Andersen's ideas run longer and deeper in Minnesota, back to the New Englanders who arrived at the Falls of St. Anthony in the 1850s and the Scandinavians who followed them, through the mid-20th century Republican Party and forward to Dayton and today's DFL Party.

They help explain why Dayton is trying to avert GOP-backed spending cuts for higher education, health care, transit and the rest. In his view, those things are essential ingredients for prosperity.

He said about as much in an interview last week: "We've never been a low-tax state. Our success has been a balance, with responsible use of our resources to create a world-class education system, a highway system, a public transit system ...

"Now it's as if employees of businesses don't matter to these folks," he said of his GOP sparring partners. "They care about the owners. But they don't recognize that the owners can't get very far without good, productive employees who can get to work, and are healthy, and who are well-educated and whose kids are being well-educated."

Dayton's latest offer to the Legislature (at this writing) asks the top 2 percent of the state's earners -- and no one else -- to pay higher income taxes to fix the state budget.

Republicans say that's a job-killer because it zeroes in on successful entrepreneurs and would send them packing. Dayton's usual reply invokes tax fairness.

He notes that the state's top earners pay a smaller share of their incomes in state-plus-local taxes than other people do. (State and local government finances are too intertwined to be fairly measured separately.)

Last week, there was more to Dayton's rationale:

"The people who are well-off in our society now are really well-off," he said. "In the last decade, while a lot of people's jobs were disappearing, the rich and the superrich did extraordinarily well. That's why you can raise $1.5 billion by raising taxes on 2 percent of the people, because there's so much money there. ...

"I think you can appeal to their enlightened self-interest. If we have a state that's falling apart, an education system that's crumbling, that's not in their interests. I don't want to raise taxes for the sake of raising taxes. I raise taxes as an alternative to draconian cuts."

Bruce Dayton used to tell his son that without customers who were able to spend, Dayton's would have failed. The son sees government as a necessary contributor to the equipping of people for citizenship and self-sufficiency -- so they can be customers.

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.

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